Following fire-related deaths, social agencies stress need for safe shelter and housing

The City of Edmonton said in a Friday news release that four homeless people have died in fire-related events in the past two months.

4 homeless Edmontonians died in fire-related events in the past two months

Four Edmontonians experiencing homelessness died in fire-related events in the past two months. One died following a fire at the former Dwayne's Home building in downtown Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)

The City of Edmonton has promised to create new fire-prevention strategies following a string of fire-related deaths among Edmonton's homeless population.

In a news release on Friday, the City of Edmonton announced that four homeless people died in fire-related events in the past two months.

"This really is a spike that we haven't seen in recent memory and we're extremely concerned about it," deputy fire chief Robert McAdam said Friday.

Scott Pattison, a spokesperson for Edmonton police, said because investigations into the fires and related deaths are still ongoing, police are not releasing the victims' ages at this time nor will they do so in the future if the deaths are deemed non-criminal. 

McAdam confirmed that the first death, which occurred on Oct. 3, took place in the river valley, near Ada Boulevard and 76th Street. 

The second, which occurred on Oct. 22, was also not linked to a fixed address, but he said it happened in the area of 118th Avenue.

The third death followed a fire on Nov. 17 at the former Dwayne's Home lodging house at 10209 100 Ave. 

At the time, Alberta Health Services said a man in his 30s was taken to hospital in critical condition.

Most recently, a man was found dead on Wednesday after a fire at 10630 95 St. — an abandoned building.

The city news release said in one of the cases, someone died after gaining access to a locked waste collection bin.

McAdam called that event "extremely upsetting" and said he has a difficult time talking about it. 

He said the person died of smoke inhalation.

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services plans to discuss prevention strategies with partners and McAdam said meetings have been scheduled for later this month. 

Safe shelter and housing

Leaders at two Edmonton organizations that help people experiencing homelessness said their colleagues are grieving the losses of those who died.

Aidan Inglis, director of programs at Boyle Street Community Services, said losing a community member is always tragic, but especially so when a death could have been prevented.

He said some people avoid established shelters because of accessibility, safety or privacy concerns.

"We just need to have adequate spaces for them to go to that are safe and that they're going to want to go to," he said.

Louise Traynor, chief operating officer at Bissell Centre, said connecting people to housing is the most important solution.

"We all need to recognize the desperation of people in a situation where they don't have a safe, sustainable place to shelter," she said.

She said people are being housed at record rates but the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis have exacerbated homelessness in the city.

Addressing homelessness

Responding to news of the deaths, NDP MLA Lori Sigurdson said in a news release that the tragedies were preventable and they underscore the dangerousness of homelessness and the need for more affordable housing.

Justin Marshall, press secretary for the minister of community and social services, said the provincial government will continue to work closely with partners to address homelessness and support vulnerable Albertans.

The province recently announced $7.2 million for expanded homeless shelter spaces in Edmonton and $1.5 million for 200 additional beds at the temporary Commonwealth Stadium shelter.